A Look Back at A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Over the last decade, the vampire has evolved on film. What I’m namely talking about is  Let the Right One In (2008), an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s brilliant novel, What We Do in the Shadows (2014), a hilarious spoof, and The Transfiguration (2016). All of these films take the vampire away from the image of a Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee-type fanged, cape-wearing monster. Let the Right One In features a beautiful friendship between its child-like vampire and a bullied boy named Oskar. The Transfiguration has much in common with George A. Romero’s brilliant vampire flick Martin, in that you’re never fully sure if the protagonists are a vampire or not, but each is obsessed with the idea of being a vampire  the vampire mythos.

Classic monsters, such as vampires, need to change with the times, and their ability to do so is why they’ve been around for hundreds of years. One of the most innovative vampire films of this decade is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a genre-bender by Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour, who was transplanted to the states with her parent as a kid.

The plot of the film is simple. It takes place in a fictional town called Dead City, and it features a female vampire simply named Girl (Shelia Vand), who feeds to live and ultimately falls in love with a James Dean-type character, Arash (Arash Marandi). The black and white film is a lot of things- noirish, a western, horror, incredibly sleek, stylized, and subversive.  It also features one of the coolest vampire figures ever seen on screen. She skateboards,  steals jewelry from deserving victims, murders abusers and pimps, and dances around her apartment to indie pop. She warns Arash that to love her is to know and accept all of the bad things that she does. She is endearing but also terrifying, telling a young boy in one scene that if he doesn’t behave, she’ll rip out of his eyes and feed them to dogs.

 

In an interview with Wired back in 2014,  Amirpour didn’t downplay the feminist underpinnings of the film, saying,  “I think [the film] can be feminist if that’s what people think,” adding, “People also say, ‘Is it political? Are you making a political statement?’ I just know what I am; I don’t know what everyone else is.”

It’s hard not to acknowledge some of the feminist undertones of the film, especially if you accept that Dead City is supposed to be in Iran, a county not exactly known for women’s rights. Even the title and the fact the female vampire skateboards or walks alone at night is significant. Furthermore, Girl dances and wears eye-shadow and  lipstick. Some of her victims are so ridiculously masculine that it’s hard not to laugh at their absurdity. For instance, one of her first victims, Saeed (Dominic Rains), invites her to his pad, which looks like a scene from Scarface, including a coffee table dusted with cocaine and a gun. He dances in front of the mirror to thumping techno music, gazing at his muscular body, before advancing on Girl, who gives him what he deserves.

In another scene, Girl avenges Atti (Mozahn Marno), a prostitute who is shot up with heroin by Arash’s father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a junkie. Besides Arash, Atti is one of the only relationships that Girl has  and admits that she watches her and notices her sadness.  Girl says to her, “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes,” to which Atti responds, “Idiots and rich people are the only ones who think things can change.”

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Girl (Shelia Vand) and Atti (Mozahn Marno)

While Atti’s dialogue fits her character, someone hardened from a life on the streets, the actions of Girl  as both a female avenger and subversive portrayal of feminine power in a restrictive culture, show that resistance can exist, even in the most oppressive societies. Furthermore, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes the image of the vampire, traditionally masculine, and subverts it as much as Let the Right One In did. This is probably why when Girl first meets Arash he’s wearing a cape and vampire fangs, stumbling home from a costume party. He’s a parody of the male vampire figure in that scene, in such a drunken state that he can’t even find his home, say his name without slurring, or cause any harm to Girl. He is totally powerless.

Since the release of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour already has another film under her belt, The Bad Batch, and she directed an episode of “Castle Rock.” Here’s hoping that she continues directing horror films because the genre, and film in general, needs more women behind the camera, especially ones like Amirpour, willing to make previous horror staples, like the vampire, unique and interesting.

 

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My 2018 Zombie Film Recommendation

Confession: I am tired of the zombie subgenre of horror. I think that “The Walking Dead” should have been canceled at least 2-3 seasons ago. I can’t think of a zombie film I watched all that recently that I found that innovative or attention-worthy, other than Cargo (2017), available to stream on Netlflix. Most of the more interesting zombie films, such as 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead, belong to the previous decade. Zombie films tend to come in waves, but this most recent wave has limped along for far too long, like a  corpse waiting to be put out of its misery.

With all of that said however, there is one zombie film released this year that warrants viewing, Night Eats the World by French director Dominique Rocher, an adaptation of Pit Agarmen’s novel. Sure, the film checks off a lot of the cliches, including a sudden outbreak and loose social commentary, but more than anything else, the film is a meditation on loneliness. It begins when moody protagonist Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) attends a party hosted by an ex. He heads into an empty bedroom by himself, falls asleep, and wakes up to a zombified world, including the apartment caked in blood. He sees some of the party’s stragglers wandering outside, roaming the streets, hungry for human meat.  Suddenly, he realizes that he’s trapped in a building alone with little possibility of escape.

The rest of the film mostly includes quiet scenes, including shots of Sam running around the mostly vacant building to stay in shape. Days, weeks, and possibly months pass. Sometimes, Sam ventures into one of the units to stock up on canned food, but is forced to bolt the doors shut after encountering more of the living dead. He forms a relationship of sorts with a balding zombie trapped in an elevator. This gnawing corpse is played by Denis Lavant, who, though he has no speaking parts, is utterly stellar through his haunting facial expressions. This zombie is humanized and distinct, like Bub in Romero’s Day of the Dead, and in his milky eyes, Sam sees a reflection of his isolated, melancholy state.  Who is really worse off in this situation?

There are times when Sam’s frustration erupts, including a scene where he launches into a pounding drum solo that draws a horde of zombies to the apartment complex. Yet, scenes where Sam is truly in danger of becoming zombie meat are relatively few and far between. Instead, the film focuses on what it would be like to be a survivor in a zombie apocalypse, when, as far as you know, all of your family and friends are dead. How do you go on living?  Throughout the film, time becomes elastic, and it’s unclear how much time has even passed between the beginning of the film and its conclusion. Will Sam even be better off if he makes it to the final scene? That much is unclear.

Stephen King called The Night Eats the World “a perfectly amazing film” a few weeks ago on Twitter, adding that it will “blow your mind.” I think King’s praise of the film is a little overblown, but I will say that the film deserves attention and has fallen under the radar, unfortunately. It tries to do something different with the zombie genre, and it generally succeeds.

 

In Defense of 2018’s Horror Offerings

Last week, Vogue posed the question, remember when horror was good? The question was followed with the blanket statement that 2017 was a far superior year for horror, due to It, Split, and lesser-known indie and foreign flicks such as Raw and It Comes at Night. The writer, Taylor Antrim, also labels Get Out a “masterpiece of social horror,” but then surmises that because Get Out didn’t win the Oscar that year (Jordan Peele did, however), that the air went out of the genre. If anything, I would argue that 2018 was another strong year for the genre, extending the new golden age.

First, Antrim admits that A Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Suspiria are good films, but the writer tries to remove the horror label from them and instead calls them thrillers. This is what some critics tried to do last year when Get Out earned Oscar nods. There were articles about “post-horror,” socially conscious films concerned with bigger ideas than guts and gore. The genre, they argued, couldn’t handle such serious themes! I guess they never watched any of Romero or Hitchcock’s horror films. It is beyond me how Antrim can see these new films as anything but horror. The first 15 minutes of A Quiet Place are some of the most nerve-jangling scenes I witnessed in cinema all year. The rest of the film features creatures terrorizing a family. Citing Hereditary, Antrim says that the genre could use a dose of humor and fun. On the one hand, I’ll admit that humor and dark delight do have a place in horror. Get Out is a good example, as well as classics like Re-Animator and Dawn of the Dead. Other genre staples, though, like The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead are pretty short on the jokes.  Would anyone question their importance to the genre because they lack punch lines?

Antrim saves most of the criticism for Halloween, this year’s highest-grossing horror film. The author’s main gripe is that the film simply wasn’t scary. I beg to differ. David Gordon Green’s film returns Michael Myers to a force of nature, and his kills are brutal without being gratuitous, unlike Rob Zombie’s two Halloween films. Perhaps more importantly, the reboot gives substance to the Final Girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), making her the hunter who wants to overcome her trauma. Even Antrim admits that the film is relevant in 2018 and the era of #MeToo.

Within the article, Antrim  says that Hereditary, A Quiet Place, Suspiria, and even the French film Revenge are good films, while trying to dislodge them from the horror label. All of these films belong to 2018, and all of these films fall within the horror genre. Vogue’s article is a continuation of the flurry of pieces last year that tried to discredit the genre. 2017 was indeed a great year for horror, but so was 2018. Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween raised a heck of a lot of money at the box office while being interesting films, short on jump scares. The year also produced a number of wonderful foreign and indie films, including Revenge, Terrified, The Witch in the Window, Ghost Stories, among others. As horror continues to do well at the box office and earn praise, it’s likely articles like Antrim’s will continue to be published. To that, I say, may the new golden age of horror extend well into 2019!

 

 

Review: Atterrados/Terrified, One of 2018’s Best Horror Films

Halloween is over and all that remains is leftover candy.  As 2018 winds down, the best-of lists will come into sharper focus. Though I haven’t yet produced a best-of list for horror films (I will at some point), I am certain that I will include the Argentinian film Atterrados/Terrified, one of this year’s most visceral and chilling films that no one is talking about.

Aterrados

It’s easy to see why Terrified was overlooked. 2018, like its predecessor, had a lot of mainstream horror hits and box office success, including Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and the rebooted Halloween. While those films were all great in their own way, 2018 proved that indie and foreign horror films like Revenge and Terrified bode well for the future of the genre. Director and screenwriter Demian Runga’s film pays tribute to the genre with callbacks to staples such as Pet Cemetery and The Grudge, while creating unique visuals and set pieces that are nightmareish and warrant sleeping with the lights on.

Set in a Buenos Aires neighborhood, Terrified follows three neighbors who are besieged by the paranormal. The first narrative focuses on a wife who hears voices in the kitchen. Shortly after dismissing the wife’s fears, the husband witnesses her body levitating mid-air in the bathroom, banging against the shower walls, leaving streaks of blood. This early set piece and disturbing visual sets the tone for the remainder of the film.

The middle of the film contains the most developed and haunting story. After a  little boy is hit by a bus and his mother is left to grieve, his corpse returns and sits at the kitchen table before a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. As paranormal investigators and an ex-cop try to make sense of the situation, the camera zooms in on the boy’s rotting, decayed flesh. The viewer is left wondering if the boy moved on his own.  Are the dirty footprints the boy’s, or do they belong to a mother so grief-stricken that she dug up the corpse of her son? The physical manifestation of grief is why the film’s middle narrative is the strongest.

As the paranormal disturbances increase, there are no Ed and Lorraine Warren-type characters to solve the problem. Even the paranormal investigators and police officers view the situation in a rational fashion, deciding it best to rebury the corpse and be done with it. This is where the film breaks from The Conjuring, Poltergeist, and other demonic/haunted house type films. No one comes to save the day, essentially. The cops and paranormal investigators don’t try to defeat the evil. They merely accept it and try to resolve it, even if that means weighing down the corpse of a boy with cement so he can’t claw his way out again.

Terrified follows a less traditional narrative structure than most films, and at times, it feels like an anthology. The only connection between the characters is that they share the same neighborhood. No explanation is given for the evil, and yet, somehow the film works without it. The first story is a full-throttle assault on the senses, and from there, the viciousness and scares are unrelenting. Terrified is one of 2018’s must-see horror films.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Poetry for Halloween

Months ago, I announced that Moon Tide Press was putting out an anthology of poems inspired by horror films. Well, the anthology is out! It features 66 poets and has wicked cool cover art by Leslie White.

Dark Ink Cover Image.jpg

If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can do so through Moon Tide’s website here, or through Amazon here.

I have three pieces in the anthology, and as a little preview, here is one of the poems:

Imagining One More Romero Movie

 

I’d like to see Romero’s take on this moment,

a time as uncanny as the dead rising,

groaning, and slow-walking towards a meal.

The elite already live in towers,

like in Land of the Dead.

The president has a tower in NYC,

barricaded by police in all-black riot gear,

like the beginning of a movie

where everything is about to go wrong.

The working-class hustle below,

their hands hard and calloused, their clothes

rife with the smell of gasoline, oil, or dirt.

Sometimes, they crane their necks, stare

at those towers, maybe to imagine a gold nameplate,

a desk, leather chair, and air-conditioned office.

 

If Romero directed one more sequel,

I wonder where he’d place the survivors.

Shopping malls are too 1980s, but maybe Starbucks,

staring at their smartphones, plugging in

before the dead bust down the doors,

rip out espresso machines, gnaw on flesh,

or maybe he’d have a horde overtake DC,

while a few remaining politicians and lobbyists

flee down K Street under a harvest moon,

until the working-class, turned, drop the gas pumps,

hammers, or call center headsets and devour the living, fed up

with slumping and staggering from job to job.

 

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halloween and the Evolution of the Final Girl

The soft reboot of Halloween is a film very much in conversation with John Carpenter’s original masterpiece. There are several scenes, especially in the second half, that mirror shots from the first film while swapping places between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the predator and the prey. The film is aware of the Final Girl tropes, a term first defined by Carol J. Clover, and this time, the Final Girl is turned into the predator instead of the prey. In doing this, the film explores the trauma Strode has endured after her encounter with Michael 40 years earlier, and though it is not the first film to have this type of story, it does make the reboot feel relevant  after a string of subpar sequels throughout the years.

Clover’s definition of the Final Girl was first presented in her seminal work Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. She studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s and came to a few conclusions. Sexual transgressors of both genders are punished and killed. Think of Lynda (P.J. Soles) in the original Halloween, who is killed soon after having sex with her boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham). Any of the sex-crazed teens in the Friday the 13th series serve as another example. Clover adds that the male killers, including Michael Myers, have an oedipal psychosis, thus a majority of their victims are female. She notes that Michael’s sexual anger towards his sister, Judith, drives him to kill her and a string of sister surrogates. Furthermore, the camera lingers on the deaths of the female victims much longer than that of the males.

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Lynda (P.J. Soles) about to meet her fate in the original Halloween

The Final Girl, Clover says, stares death in the face, and she is either rescued or kills the slasher herself. What made a film like Halloween especially unique was the way it disrupted traditional narrative structure. In analyzing structure and point of view, Clover references Laura Mulvey’s definition of the male gaze and cinematic narrative structure, specifically that the male drives the story’s action and the point of view is associated with him. Films like Halloween were different because the spectator identified with the Final Girl and eventually saw everything through her point of view. She was also the most developed psychologically. To underscore this point, Clover analyzes the closet scene in Halloween, writing,

As the killer slashes and stabs the closet door—we see this from her inside perspective—she bends a hanger into a weapon, and, when he breaks the door down, stabs him in the eye. Given the drift in just the four years between Texas Chain Saw and Halloween –from passive to active defense—it is no surprise that the films following Halloween present Final Girls who not only fight back but do so with ferocity and even kill the killer on their own, without help from the outside (37).

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Laurie Strode hiding in the closet in Halloween. The camera shows her point of view.

Lastly, Clover theorizes that  Final Girls adapt masculine characteristics to defeat the killer and to fulfill a traditional Western narrative of the hero. The Final Girl is boyish, and she has a general competence with practical matters. She seizes the killer’s phallic weapon, such as Michael’s kitchen knife, to defeat him. Of this narrative trope, Clover writes,

It is no surprise, in light of these developments, that the Final Girl should show signs of boyishness. Her symbolic phallicization, in the last scenes, may or may not proceed at root from the horror of lack on the part of the audience and maker. But it certainly proceeds from the need to bring her in line with epic laws of Western narrative tradition—the very unanimity of which bears witness to the historical importance, in popular culture, of the literal representation of heroism in male form—and it proceeds no less from the need to render the relocated gaze intelligible to an audience conditioned by the dominant cinematic apparatus (60-61).

Halloween 2018 stands apart from its predecessor and other slasher films from that period because unlike its predecessors, our association does not eventually shift to the Final Girl. Unlike the original Halloween, which opens with a young Michael Myers’ gaze as he is about to murder his sister, the latest film is essentially Laurie’s story from the outset. The opening scene focuses on Michael, unmasked and shackled in a prison yard, but it is Laurie Strode who carries the film. She is immediately depicted as the hunter and predator, and in some of the first scenes, we see her wooded house, complete with a hideout shelter, cameras, and dozens of guns.

LaurenHalloweenrifle

Even through her dialogue, Laurie makes clear that she will hunt and stalk him this time, saying at one point, “He is a killer, but he will be killed tonight.” This idea is reinforced when we see Laurie firing rounds of ammo outside of her home, shooting mannequins in the head. She is armed and ready to confront Myers.

In that regard, and unlike earlier slasher films, there is no symbolic phallicization that needs to occur later in the film. Laurie is in possession of a stockpile of traditionally masculine weapons before Myers ever touches a knife after he crashes a transport bus and escapes to Haddonfield.

The reversal of the predator/prey dichotomy is underscored even more by the scenes that director David Gordon Green and writer Danny McBride chose to mirror from the original film. When Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), is in class, Laurie waits outside of the school, and Allyson meets her gaze. In the original film, when Laurie is in the classroom, Michael stands outside, stalking her before suddenly vanishing. The roles here are reversed.

Near the conclusion of the film, Laurie hunts Michael through her house, and she searches for him in closets very similar to the closet where he tormented her in the original film before she stabbed him with a hanger. In the new film, Laurie is the one stalking him, not the other way around. Lastly, when Michael pushes Laurie off a balcony, nearly killing her, the scene echoes the ending of the original film. When he looks down, she is gone, determined to get back up and kill him.

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Laurie hunting Michael

It is no coincidence then that mirrors and windows are a reoccurring symbol in the film. Most importantly, when Laurie first sees Michael after his escape, it is while she stands outside of a house in Haddonfield and catches a glimpse of him through a bedroom window. His face is reflected in a mirror. The mirror image returns throughout several scenes and highlights the change of roles and the similarities between Michael and Laurie, how they were both predator and prey between both films. Another interpretation is that Laurie’s obsession with confronting Michael has made her monstrous in that it has walled her off from her family and any other type of meaningful relationship.

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Laurie’s first encounter with Michael in Halloween 2018, seen through a window and reflection in a mirror.

Halloween 2018’s other concern is the presentation of female trauma. As already stated, Halloween 2018 is not the only film that addresses trauma of the Final Girl. In fact, it has already been addressed in the franchise’s previous entries. Rob Zombie explored this in Halloween II, and it was addressed rather extensively in Halloween H20. However, in the age of #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearings, specifically the powerful image of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford raising her hand, about to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee composed of nearly all white men, Laurie Strode’s updated character is especially resonant against the backdrop of current events. The scar on her upper arm from the time Michael slashed her 40 years earlier is a physical manifestation of her trauma, a mark that won’t go away, no matter how many times her family tells her to move on from the past.

As the story unfolds, the viewer learns what happened to Laurie since her first encounter with Michael. She lost custody of her daughter, and, during the present events of the film, has a difficult time maintaining a relationship with her granddaughter. Her scars are both deep and lasting, reverberating for decades. Additionally, people view her as a wingnut, especially since she became a survivalist. While interviewed by two British pod casters who label themselves “investigative journalists,” Laurie questions why they’re willing to humanize Michael, despite the fact he killed her friends, but view her as a “basket case” because she’s been twice divorced. This is one of the smartest scenes in the film and raises questions about how we treat and view female survivors.

The film makes a broader critique of masculinity. Two of the earliest deaths are that of a father and son. The son tells his father that he wants to continue dance lessons. The father, a hunter, scoffs. When they encounter the crashed transport bus that was carrying Michael, the father, eager to grab a gun and investigate, winds up dead. The son, who initially broke from a traditional masculine role by expressing his interest in dance over hunting, ultimately follows in the father’s footsteps by exploring the scene and arming himself with a rifle. Of course, this does not end well. It’s one of the most brutal deaths in the film and one of the most haunting set pieces.

One character who tries to fill a traditionally masculine role, Ray (Toby Huss), husband of Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), is the biggest comic relief and essentially impotent. When we’re first introduced to him, he is slathering mouse traps with peanut butter, tending to a rodent problem, a task usually assigned to the male. However, he fails to do this well and ends up getting peanut butter all over his pants, his crotch area specifically. Later, when Laurie warns Karen to prepare for Michael’s arrival, Ray shouts that it is his house and his to defend, if need be. However, both Karen and Laurie ignore him and talk over him. Laurie arms him with a gun far smaller than the rifles she possesses and urges Karen to use.

The rest of the men in the film are generally ineffective against Michael’s wrath. There is no Dr. Loomis-type character to save anyone, and unlike the original film, Laurie doesn’t need his assistance to defeat the boogeyman. Michael’s latest doctor, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a former protege of Loomis, is morally ambiguous, to say the least, and has some weird fascination with Myers, an urge to understand his power and what it’s like to murder. Unlike Loomis, he doesn’t believe that Myers is pure evil, a force beyond reason. Even the police officers are generally helpless against Myers. Though females are killed in the film, a majority of the kills happen to men. The camera lingers on their brutalized bodies, a reversal from the early tropes identified by Clover.

In the preface to the Princeton Classics Edition of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Clover commented upon the more recent state of the slasher genre and the Final Girl, essentially speaking out against how the term has been misconstrued, in her view, and what has happened to the genre following the initial publication of her book. Essentially, she states that the Final Girl has been turned into a sketch. She writes,

But a sketch is only a sketch. Fill this one out with the dimensions of affect, identification, pacing, and audience, and the picture gets kinkier. Yes, the Final Girl brings down the killer in the final moments, but consider how she spent a good hour of the film up to then being chased and almost caught, hiding, running, falling, rising in pain and fleeing again, seeing her friends mangled and killed by weapon-wielding killers, and so on. ‘Tortured survivor’ might be a better term than ‘hero.’ Or, given the element of last minute luck ‘accidental survivor.’ Or, as I call her, ‘victim hero,’ with an emphasis on ‘victim.’ It’s a great moment when she stops the killer, but to imagine that her, and our, experience of the film reduces to that last-minute reversal is to truly miss the point (x).

Clover’s concern regarding the Final Girl and what others have said about her theory is understandable. Yet, Laurie, Karen, and Allyson Strode in Halloween 2018 don’t spend the film being chased or hiding, running, and falling. In this film, the roles are totally reversed. Laurie Strode is the predator and Michael her prey.

This is not to say that Halloween 2018 is a perfect film. It certainly isn’t. The younger Strodes are generally underdeveloped and aren’t given much to do until the final act. Hopefully, a sequel remedies this. There is a plot twist near the final act that nearly stops the story in its tracks. Additionally, what does it say about our culture to have a new Halloween movie where guns are ever-present and the only way to confront Michael is by amassing firearms? That said, at the very least, the reboot tries to do something different with the Final Girl tropes, while adding yet another dimension to Laurie Strode, one that feels especially relevant for 2018.

 

Some additional suggested reading:

Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover

“A Tale of Two Lauries: Trauma in ‘Halloween H20’ and 2018’s ‘Halloween”  by Bloody Disgusting

“A Raged-Filled Halloween for Our Time” by Dawn Keetley/Horror Homeroom

“The New Halloween Re-imagines the Franchise as a Tale of Maternal Warrior Women” by Vox

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula by Alexandra West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apostle, Folk Horror, and Masculinity

Netflix’s continues adding to its ever-growing horror collection. One of its latest entries is Apostle, directed by Gareth Evans.  Several reviews have already compared the film to 1973’s The Wicker Man, since  both films are rooted in the folk horror subgenre, deal with religious fanaticism, and essentially build their own unsettling worlds, in each case a small, remote island. Yet, where Apostle breaks from some other films in the subgenre is in its critique of masculinity.

Apostle is set in 1905, and generally, little backstory is given to the island where the protagonist, Thomas (Dan Stevens), winds up in a quest to rescue his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys). In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, we come to realize why Thomas has abandoned religion. He was tortured when he tried to introduce Christianity to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. As Thomas is tormented before a burning cross, no God comes to his rescue. This is just one of the many scenes in which poor Thomas is put through the meat grinder.

The other men in the film, namely Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and later Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), use religion to keep the island’s inhabitants in line and to subjugate women. At one point, when Malcolm claims that Jennifer is a traitor, he parades her through the village in shackles and leaves her outside where children poke her with sticks and yank at her hair. The violence she suffers at the hands of men is only exacerbated as the film progresses.

These men also exercise strict and harsh control over women’s bodies. For example, Quinn cuts a baby out of his daughter’s womb and then uses a medieval torture device on her lover because he didn’t want them to be together and he certainly didn’t want his daughter to have the baby. Quinn is the film’s most pronounced example of ruthless, unchecked patriarchy, and his violence exceeds that of Malcolm’s.

The island, meanwhile, is inhabited by a goddess, and Malcolm claims to speak for her. He also feeds her animal and human blood, and yet, he can’t fathom why crops keep failing. The goddess, who seems to be nature personified, suffers because of the men who rule the island. They try to claim her for their own and tame her, but under their firm hand, any plant that starts to green soon withers and browns.

Apostle trailer:

 

Initially, Thomas is afraid of the goddess, and his first encounter with her is one of the most chilling images in the film. She is as decayed and creepy as the woman who inhabits room 237 in The Shining.  However, near the end of the film, he kneels to her and better understands her story, specifically that she isn’t so monstrous as he once assumed. Of all of the men in the film, Thomas has the most connection to the women. He comes to island because of  Jennifer, he forms a semi-romantic relationship with one of the islanders, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), and he eventually understands and sympathizes with the goddess. It should be noted, too, that both Jennifer and Andrea have their own agency, especially near the conclusion.

In the final shot, as Jennifer and Andrea escape the island via boat, Thomas and Malcolm, who evolves after witnessing Quinn’s brutality, sit together on a cliff as the women leave. New life finally grows, after Thomas and Malcolm’s blood has been spilled. There are a few ways to interpret this last scene. Maybe nothing grew on the island when the goddess was fed human blood because the island and its people were so tainted under Malcolm and then Quinn’s rule. Maybe new life grows because Thomas and eventually Malcolm transcend the negative aspects of masculinity with the help of women. Because of that, new life could flourish on the island, or maybe the cycle of life and death simply returns because the goddess is free, so to speak.

Apostle is a solid entry to the folk horror subgenre, especially for some of its critiques of masculinity. In that regard, it has some commonality to Dave Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch, which also has a menacing patriarchal figure, the father of a Puritan family who is so rooted in religious dogma and superstition that he suspects his eldest daughter is a witch as she comes of age sexually. Both films are awash in cool tones that establish the bleak atmosphere, especially as the crops fail and the violence heightens. The gore in Apostle is excessive at times, especially torture to animals, and the film could have been cut and edited slightly more, but overall, it is another noteworthy addition to this year’s already strong horror list.

Recommended: Check out this article over at Horror Homeroom about some other films that will help you better understand Apostle.